If everything goes as it should over the next couple months, something magical will happen at Kentucky. In a flash, John Calipari will go from working with the youngest Wildcats team he has coached to the one of his “oldest.”
There won’t be any seniors in the rotation like Darius Miller. There only would be two juniors, big men Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. There would, however, be more of what matters to a basketball team returning to Kentucky than at any point since Calipari arrived in 2009.
There seems little doubt projected first-round picks Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will leave for the NBA Draft and join their many predecessors as one-and-done Wildcats. They were Kentucky’s two leading scorers and most reliable players in a season that resulted in a 26-11 record, an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance and an SEC tournament championship.
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It would be no surprise, as well, to see forward Jarrod Vanderbilt ride his short string of high-rebound performances out of Lexington, although it’s hard to imagine him being selected in a prominent draft position.
If that’s where the list of Kentucky early entrants ends, though — and logically, that’s the longest it should be — the program will retain an experience level that would set it up for a potentially dominant season in 2018-19.
With P.J. Washington, Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Gabriel, Nick Richards and Killeya-Jones, Kentucky would return:
— 57 percent of the scoring from the 2017-18 team
— 67 percent of the rebounding
— 39 percent of the assists
— 64 percent of minutes played
You know what last year’s numbers were heading into this season? Here goes: 7 percent of scoring, 15 percent of rebounds, 7 percent of assists, 12 percent of minutes.
The only season in which UK had similar production return was in 2014-15, when they lost Julius Randle and James Young after reaching the NCAA championship game but returned 58 percent of the scoring and 57 percent of the rebounding. The Wildcats then opened the season with 38 consecutive victories before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Calipari gave no hint of his expectations regarding the returning players when he spoke to the media following Thursday’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals.
“I don’t know yet until I sit down with all the guys, sit down and talk and see where they are with things and where their families are,” Calipari said. “I have no idea. We haven’t discussed it.”
Calipari always has encouraged those of his players who reasonably could be expected to be drafted at the high end of the NBA Draft's first round to make the move. He has supported even those who figured to be making a mistake, such as center Dakari Johnson, who departed after the 2015 season, was left undrafted until late in the second round and has played only 29 NBA games in three seasons.
He won’t talk anyone out of going, although he certainly will present them with the truth. And the truth is obvious for most of the players on the Kentucky roster: The NBA is going to welcome them. Soon. But not immediately.
Kentucky’s incoming recruits are Immanuel Quickley, a quick guard who can play with or without the ball; Tyler Herro, a 6-5 guard renowned as a shooter; and Keldon Johnson, a muscular 6-6 wing known for playing with toughness and energy. If the Wildcats were able to combine the returning core with those players and maybe one more big man, they would enter next season as a formidable contender for the NCAA championship.
As important as the past two months were in establishing how quickly Kentucky can grow as a team even when at its youngest, the next two months will be the most important for UK basketball in years.